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an alien and an astronaut looking at each other in space in promotional art for Prey

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GOTY 2017: #7 Prey

Tradition as the democracy of the dead

When I was in college, I took a Shakespeare class that nearly broke me.

At first, it felt like I was trying to read a bowl of alphabet soup. My professor’s suggestion to read aloud didn’t help me find rhyme or meter, and even Cliff’s Notes couldn’t help me divine any meaning. I was lost and seriously considering dropping the class when, for reasons I still can’t explain, my perseverance magically paid off. As I read the third play in as many weeks, The Merchant of Venice, the words melted away. I met characters, read in their voices, cringed, fell in love. By the time the semester ended, I became, God help me, one of the 0.0000000001 percent of the population who actually enjoys reading Shakespeare.

I don’t think much about Shakespeare these days, but when I do, here’s what I think of most: In the English literary canon, Shakespeare has the gravitational force of the sun, even though his characters had to speak, at least on the surface, like they were reciting a poem. He endures through centuries because his stories encompass, grapple with and explain essential parts of the human experience. And he did this while shackled to a rigid, weird narrative form. Shakespeare, in other words, achieved greatness despite his constraints.

When I think about developer Arkane Studios’ Prey, I’m reminded of Shakespeare. Like the Bard, Prey operates under easily identifiable constraints. At first, the form seems rigid, even impenetrable. And yet, like a play written in a form of English that I’d never use and in a way I’d never talk, Prey implores players to break through their walls — sometimes literally — and rewards us with a story, characters and self-directed experiences that were among the best in 2017.

#7: PREY

For Game of the Year 2017, Polygon will be counting down our top 10 each weekday, beginning on Dec. 4. On Dec. 18, we'll reveal our favorite 50 of 2017. And throughout the month, we'll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises! Previously: #8 - Horizon Zero Dawn

Prey is great not because it ushers in a new paradigm. It’s great because it embraces constraints — principles born decades ago at developer Looking Glass — and deploys them like a reliable recipe, tweaking the ingredients to taste. And the core of that recipe — the big, fat slab of meat that all of the herbs and spices accentuate — is an obsession with player agency.

Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

The formula

Prey owes its formula to the developers at Looking Glass. Its 1994 first-person shooter, System Shock, was so influential for so many reasons that it’s difficult to imagine modern games without looking through the lens of System Shock and its sequel.

Looking Glass influenced and inspired games as varied as first-person shooters like BioShock, walking simulators like Gone Home and, I kid you not, rhythm franchises like Guitar Hero.

In short, Looking Glass established a formula that many games, including Prey, have followed. If you’ve ever played a game with audio logs scattered about to find, unfurl and deepen the story, you’ve seen System Shock’s influence. If you’ve ever played a first-person shooter with a deep and immersive story, you’ve seen System Shock’s influence. If you’ve ever played a game with inventory management and scarce resources, you’ve seen System Shock’s influence.

If you’ve ever played a game where the code 451 (or some derivation thereof) opens a door, then you’ve seen the Looking Glass code. In the years since System Shock used it, the Looking Glass code (which once unlocked the developer’s real-world door) became something like a sigil, a way for developers not only to pay homage to the long-gone developer but to wink and nod and quietly signal simpatico values. In Prey, a game that randomly generates almost every key code, protagonist Morgan Yu’s office is always behind code 0451.

Hell, the in-game sci-fi doodad through which you peek into Prey’s past is called the damn Looking Glass. If you want to understand Prey and what makes it work, you need to understand Looking Glass and System Shock. Their influence loomed large as Arkane Studios created Prey.

Everyone begins Prey with a wrench and confusion
Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

The application

Many games are bespoke experiences, thrill rides that guide players with an invisible hand. They unfold like summer blockbusters, so you’ll see every explosion at the right time, from the right angle — and grab the right tool just before entering the dungeon that requires it. These can be fun, but they’re anathema to games like Prey, which prefers players’ hands to invisible ones.

Throughout Prey, players make choices, and those choices influence — and to some extent, change — the game. The developers’ responsibility is to design a world where divergent choices work just as well for the sneaky and the loud, the magic user and the pistol shooter, the human and the genetically altered hybrid.

Everyone begins Prey with a sense of confusion and a wrench. Where you go from there is up to you, and the whole of the deserted Talos I space station is designed to accommodate your choices. Whether you prefer the slow deliberateness of stealth, the magic of telepathy or the explosive, double-barreled power of a shotgun, Prey bends to your will.

It’s not that Prey allows you to choose. It insists that you do so. And not just in small ways, like faster reload speed or bigger ammo bags, but in fundamental choices that determine not just the kind of killing machine but the kind of person you’ll become.

From your first moments in Prey, you’ll make a series of decisions that affects not just you but the characters around you, your space prison and, ultimately, the future of the human race. This is all, everywhere and always, because of you. It’s your fault if things go poorly. It’s your fault if things go well. It’s not a summer blockbuster. It’s a choose your own adventure book with galactic consequences.

This is the legacy of System Shock, where players are at the center of a narrative that they change through their actions and their decisions. And as Prey demonstrates, these ideas work as well today as they did in the mid-‘90s.

Prey, through this lens, is an ode to a classic, but it doesn’t feel derivative. To those who know its influences, it feels familiar without slipping into parody. It’s a thoroughly modern take on an established formula, not content to simply paint by numbers but to realize these tested ideas with modern affordances. Prey updates the things that didn’t age well, keeps those that still work and adds some ideas of its own.

Everything in Prey — from the early realization that anything can kill you to optional side quests — feeds the narrative, connecting like a quilt’s patch into the fabric of a story that you control.

Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

The future

There’s an old saying that tradition is the democracy of the dead. It’s not an argument against innovation, but rather an argument for reflecting. As you pause, you may find wisdom from your predecessors who worked this stuff out, too. Maybe don’t be surprised if your house’s flat roof has more leaks more than your neighbor’s A-frame.

Prey knows and respects its forbearers. It’s one of the best games of 2017 not because it is radically different, but because it is unflinchingly, unashamedly and uncompromisingly constrained, reverential and modern at the same time — all the while making sure that players stand at the locus of decision.

Unfortunately, Prey may have more in common with System Shock than its creators intended. As influential as System Shock may be, nobody would characterize its sales as great. I’ve seen no indication that Prey was a colossal sales hit, either. With a few notable exceptions, games of this mold tend not to be terribly popular. Could Prey, yet another System Shock-influenced project with possibly middling sales, become an unintentional swan song to this series or even this kind of game?

Maybe. But there is hope. Decades after the original, System Shock producer Warren Spector and a team of developers at Otherside Entertainment is developing System Shock 3. After a successful Kickstarter, veteran developer Chris Avellone and Nightdive Studios are reimagining the original.

Whether or not Arkane gets to expand on the universe it created, Prey is a towering example of a game that flourishes under brilliant constraints. As with System Shock, maybe it will inspire other developers to revere the past, imbue players with the power to make meaningful decisions and mimic one of 2017’s best games.